The ringmaster

Will mobile TV in the Gulf threaten cultural and religious norms as it moves towards prime time?

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By  Amy Glass Published  September 13, 2008

The UAE is preparing to become the first Gulf state to offer mobile TV as it gears up for deregulation. But will it threaten cultural and religious norms?

Mohamed Al Ghanim, the former telecoms engineer handpicked to drive the UAE to the forefront of telecommunications technology, is surely a man with many plans.

As the director general of the nation's Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, Al Ghanim is charged with guarding and developing the telecoms across the emirates.

Du had finally entered the fixed line market in 2007, following a drawn out 13-month negotiation with Etisalat, overseen by the TRA.

Quietly spoken, yet enthusiastic when he warms to the subject, it is clear that in the five years since the federal government issued Decree Number 3 of 2003 establishing an independent authority to oversee the telecommunications sector, he has been busy.

Al Ghanim's tasks have included building national and international policies from scratch, bringing about the introduction of second telecom operator du and forging international links.

His latest project is to prepare the way for the introduction of television broadcasts available via mobile phones, an innovation he is eager to see arrive in the emirates.

The regulator in August opened bids for a single licence for the provision of television to mobile phone users, a licence which will see a basic package offered to both Etisalat and du customers.

"The licenced company will have basic channels, and 50 percent of airtime capacity will be for these channels. Then the individual telecom firms can apply to this company and sign exclusive deals for their own customers," he explains.

The bid is limited to local UAE companies and companies who have GCC nationality, and Al Ghanim expects to announce the successful bidder in December.

"We hope to see mobile television come to the UAE in 2009, and we will be the first Middle East country to jump into this business," he adds.

Being first with new technologies is of clear importance to Al Ghanim.

"The UAE encourages innovation, and we try to bring in the latest technology, we were first in the Middle East to have GSM. Our nation is very technologically advanced, our people want the latest in the world."

Still, mobile TV is a complex business, requiring the careful juggling of telecom firms, advertisers, broadcasters, media companies, content regulators and the viewers.

"We have to be careful in making sure of our content regulations. These mobile handsets are in the hands of children, and TV is a very powerful tool. We have been working with the UAE national media council for content regulations and we have finalised it.

"It's going to be interesting to see the entire thing come together and work."

If successful, the achievement will be the latest in a string of projects for Al Ghanim.

When he was first charged with heading the TRA in July 2004 on its conception, he faced the daunting task of building a government organisation from literally nothing.

"The initial phase of the TRA was extremely difficult; we were building it up from scratch. We didn't even have a pencil, or a budget. Putting all the enabling blocks together was the priority, while licencing a second operator and setting up free trade agreements with the US and Australia."

Al Ghanim said the UAE government was keen to promote competition within the telecom sector, a move which saw the establishment of du - to contend with long-established operator Etisalat.

"Many people asked us, why are you fixing something that is not broken and I always say - well, competition is always healthy. Competition encourages innovation and provides better choice to customers, and stimulates reduction in prices. And this is what we have witnessed."

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